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Ackerman applies full court press in WNBA

In the dead of winter, stadiums across the country are packed with basketball fans and TVs are tuned to college hoops matchups and NBA antics.

Though it won't be until the summer sun begins to swelter that the WNBA's first game tips off, there is no off-season for WNBA President Valerie Ackerman.

Two decades ago, the former Lawn resident and starting forward for the women's basketball team traded in her jersey for a law degree. In 1996, she transitioned again and left the courts she that had been so integral in her life, this time from a high ranking attorney in the NBA to WNBA founder.

Now at the top of her game, she is responsible for the overall operation of a league that has catapulted women's basketball - and women's sports as a whole - into the national sports spotlight.

"I'm someone who tries to maximize every experience she has," Ackerman said. "You only go around once."

Old school

Ackerman arrived at the University in 1977, fresh off the courts from New Jersey's Hope Well Valley High, a high school alma mater she shares with her coach at Virginia, Debbie Ryan.

"I knew of her, and her dad was my athletic director there," said Ryan, who began recruiting Ackerman when Ryan was an assistant coach for the women's basketball team. Halfway through the recruitment process Ryan was promoted to head coach, and the New Jersey pair started their rookie seasons together the following year.

"She was an instant leader on our team," Ryan said. Ackerman was one of three freshman starters on the fledgling team.

As the recipient of half of the only women's basketball scholarship, which she shared with her roommate, Ackerman was already preparing the way to become a leader in the pros.

"I would directly attribute where I am today with my experiences at U.Va.," she said. "Playing sports is very consuming. That aspect of your life tends to have an enormous impact on you."

This impact manifested itself in her studies. Before graduating in 1981, Ackerman spent the spring of her fourth year toiling over her senior thesis on the role of sports in society. She made the case that sports served as a "civil religion" in the U.S., transmitting values, bringing people together and "showing the human spirit at its best."

Looking back on those words, and her career, only one thing has changed.

"I just believe now more than ever in the power of sports," she said.

But that power wasn't enough to lead Virginia to the top in that first season. Though the team finished in 1977-78 at 8-17, by the spring of 1981, the Virginia women finished 22-10 overall and 5-2 in the ACC, both records at the time.

Despite the strides the women's team was making, there were still many obstacles to overcome.

"It was an incredible time for men's basketball," Ackerman said of an era when college superstars like Ralph Sampson led the men's team to consecutive top 10 rankings and a Final Four appearance. "The contrast between how the two teams were treated was significant."

"There were huge inequalities, huge," Ryan said. "Val was part of how things changed here."

She got game

After graduation, Ackerman played a year of professional basketball in France, but it was not without an honors degree in her pocket and thoughts of law school in mind.

"If I could relive it, I would do it longer," Ackerman said of her experiences in Europe. Playing pro ball was not her intended career path, though. "Ultimately I intended to go to law school," she said.

After graduation from UCLA's law school in 1985, Ackerman joined a New York law firm before matriculating to the NBA as a staff attorney in 1988. She continued to climb up the ranks of the basketball bastion until 1994 when she became vice president of business affairs.

"It was luck and timing that I ended up at the NBA," said Ackerman, who had connections to league commissioner David Stern. In addition to the NBA wanting to diversify its workforce, she said, and her experience working in a large law firm, "I had played basketball and that was respected."

A league of their own

As early as 1992, Ackerman and her fellow NBA higher-ups had been thinking of creating a women's counterpart to the men's league.

"We had been kicking around the idea of creating a women's league that would run in the summer," Ackerman recounted. "It didn't seem like the landscape was primed yet."

The 1996 Olympic Games not only primed the landscape, but also covered it in a fine coat of finish.

"There was a great opportunity to capitalize on the Olympics," said Dawn Staley, a University alumnus, a Charlotte Sting guard and women's head coach at Temple University.

A combination of home-country advantage, a gold medal win and huge television ratings for the championship game helped assure the '96 Dream Team and women's basketball a national fan base.

"That really did set the stage for us," Ackerman said. "It was the perfect launch pad."

When Ackerman took the helm of the newly formed Women's National Basketball League, she admitted she was probably less emotional than she should have been.

But between choosing players, referees, schedules, cities, logos, team names and even a design for the new league basketball, there was hardly a moment to consider her personal reactions, let alone the impact of the juggernaut soon to be unleashed on women's sports. "There was never any time to think about the larger implications," she said.

Those implications are not only at the professional level, but the college one as well.

"When Debbie Ryan's team does well and college teams do well, that helps us," Ackerman said.

"The WNBA has helped to raise the level of play in college," said Ryan. "They work a lot harder."

Related Links
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    For Staley, the league has given her added responsibilities.

    "For us to uphold the women's basketball in the highest form, we must make them students of the game," she said. "When you get to the next level, players realize it's all on them."

    The league hopes to maintain this higher level in seasons to come. Still, Ackerman does not foresee any halt to the young league's challenges any time soon.

    "For now 16 [teams] is a very workable number for us," she said. "Over time we will get bigger."

    And there are still players to recruit, revenues to increase, television audiences to attract and fan bases to build.

    Additionally, there are the unique obstacles to face that Ackerman associates with women's sports in general, such as less media coverage than men's sports.

    There is little doubt, however, that a woman who has been accepting challenges since she stepped onto the floor at University Hall will have a hard time stepping it up for the league.

    "Val's been so instrumental in getting women's basketball this far," Staley said. "She is a great businesswoman who will look at the league and what needs to be done."

    Ryan shares those sentiments, but finds it harder to put into words all that Ackerman has done for women's basketball.

    "I don't think I can qualify that," Ryan said. "I think of words like 'extraordinary,' 'invaluable,' 'unique."

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